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When Is Daddy Coming Home?

Military spouses and children deal with the stress of absence caused by military deployment.

Today’s deployed military personnel include both mothers and fathers whose children have something in common — their absent parent can’t return home soon enough.

Chester Charles Egert, a U.S. Army chaplain on active duty for 31 years, knows this angst firsthand.

“There’s a big vacant spot where they miss their mom or dad,” says Egert, 59. “Parents are not there for birthdays, graduations, activities at school, or games.”

Lack of supervision also can be problematic, according to Egert. While he was in grade school, his father, an Army photographer, deployed to Panama, leaving his working mom to do the best she could she could raising him and his older brother by herself.

Egert, at age 11, sensed God calling him into a future in ministry, which led him into the military. In 1993, he deployed to Somalia.

Scott McChrystal, former senior military chaplain at West Point and now U.S. Missions Chaplaincy Ministries military representative, says redeployment presents unique challenges.

“There’s unrealistic expectations of everything getting back to normal,” McChrystal says. “Yet the deployed spouse has changed, the family’s changed, then the whole process of reintegrating can be disrupted.”

All too soon, dad or mom leaves again.

How the caregiver goes is how the family goes,” adds McChrystal’s wife, Judy, the mother of four children. “If the spouse at home is thriving, usually the family thrives.”

However, if that person struggles, so does everyone else. The ages of children when a spouse deploys also matters. Early teens may have the most difficult time adjusting.

When Egert deployed to Somalia, his wife, Rhoda, was left at home with their two daughters, then ages 8 and 5. He says Rhoda wrestled with fear until the Holy Spirit helped her. A decade later, the girls had a better understanding of their mom’s concerns.

“By the time I went to Iraq for the first time in 2003, the girls were watching news on TV and had become much more aware of danger.” Rhoda carefully explained that their dad was in God’s hands, no matter what happened.

These days, the Egerts live in Grove, Oklahoma, where they lead a ministry to chaplains, veterans, and ministers called Legacy TEAMS (Transforming, Encouraging, and Assessing Mission Strength) that offer coaching, mentoring, and pastoral care. 

April L. Cao, 39, a mother of four and the wife of Hung Cao, 45, an active duty naval officer, says that besides age, each child’s personality also makes a difference in the way they handle the deployment experience. Their adopted daughter Grace, now 11, especially sensed the absence. Only 3 at the time, Cao says a “daddy doll” gave her a physical reminder of him to hug.

With a strong first-child personality, Cao says 14-year-old Gabriel tried to take over his father’s role during deployment.

“Gabriel wants to take care of his siblings and me when I really want him to be a kid,” she says. Children need to emotionally process their feelings in order to be less sad and anxious while their fathers are away, Cao says. Modern technology such as FaceTime and Skype make it easier for older kids to cope during deployment, she believes.

Even so, the physical separation of family can be a jarring experience.

“Children of deployed military personnel live with the knowledge that something can happen at any time,” Egert says. Families living on base help each other. But a community feeling may not exist for National Guard and military reserve families.

“Sometimes these children go through as much emotional trauma, if not more, than those with parents who are deceased or going through divorce,” says Mark A. Entzminger, senior director of AG Children’s Ministries. “Our goal is to help children’s ministry leaders look for the kids who are most vulnerable and find ways they can reach out to them.”

Patti Townley-Covert

Freelance writer and editor Patti Townley-Covert is the co-author of two books: Love. Money. Power. A Believer’s Journey Into Reality, and In The Red Zone: A Game Plan for How to Share Your Faith.